Tale 3 - Smart Textiles in Art

“The art challenges the technology, and the technology inspires the art.”
-John Lasseter

Art can be a powerful driver of innovation in any field and observing how artists choose to use–or even invent–technology can be an inspiring indicator of things to come.

For decades, e-textiles and smart textiles were looked at as craft more than science. With technical complexity creating visual simplicity, it’s easy to find smart textiles as more familiar than foreign, more low-tech than high-res, making them a great medium for visual stunts.

Below, we’ll explore 5 pieces that show how smart fabrics, outside of complete garments, can be used to make compelling works of art, ranging from music to museums and even master’s programs.


Using a combination of conductive yarns and color changing threads, Maggie Orth’s piece uses electricity to create phase change within a woven textile. The piece is currently on display at The Storefront for Art and Architecture.

Artist: Maggie Orth | Piece Name: 100 Electronic Art Years, 2009 | Media: Hand-woven cotton, rayon, conductive yarns, silver ink, thermochromic ink, drive electronics and software. 62" x 54" x 8"

Technology similar to that used for Maggie Orth’s piece were used by Laura Devendorf for research on dynamic textile displays, using Thermochromic textiles with electricity to make low-powered displays that aren’t backlit.


EJ Tech’s website features a nice collection of experiments and art pieces done with smart fabric. In this featured experiment, fabric is turned into a controller for making tunes. EJ Tech clearly states they do not intend to mass produce this prototype; it serves as inspiration above all— as art often does.

Artist: EJ Tech | Piece Name: N/A | Media: Fabric, conductive ink

Artist Imogen Heap can be seen using her gesture gloves to control a musical experience. Designed for experimental work in both her studio and on stage, Heap describes them as Minority Report for musicians.


Tactile Dialogues is a piece created to encourage dialogue between severe dementia patients and their loved ones by triggering physical communication patterns. Integrated within the fabric are vibration elements that react to touch, encouraging the patient to move and develop conversations in an alternative, yet bodily way. While this piece is not necessarily art, it dances between the delightful and the academic.

Tactile Dialogs | Designers: Martijn ten Bhömer, Borre Akkersdijk, Oscar Tomico
  • Designers: Martijn ten Bhömer, Borre Akkersdijk, Oscar Tomico
  • Partners: TU/e, TextielMuseum TextielLab, De Wever, byBorre, Optima Knit, Metatronics
  • Students: Orfeas Lyras, Suzanne Bon, Bregje Brocken, Carolina Gómez Naranjo & Kimberly Schelle
  • Materials: Cotton yarn, Elektrisola textile wire, 3D-printed casing, Bekinox conductive fibers, Vibration motors, Custom CRISP motor printed circuit board, Battery
  • Techniques: Circular knitting, 3D-printing, Programming, Heat pressing, Soldering


50 Different Minds uses fiber optics to create multidimensional fabric swatches with lovely streaks of color by parsing real-time data from the Internet, assigning it a pattern and triggering a display of changing pattern and color. Swatches are based on the color theory of painter Josef Albers and his wife Anni Albers’ work in textiles. This Kickstarter supported project, produces an animated effect that looks like illuminated silk.

Title: 50 Different Minds

Mass market interpretations of this technology illustrate the delicate artistry of light distribution in the 50 Different Minds project.


Cross stitch is used as a communication tool in this piece by Wei Chieh Shih. His textile is fashioned into a poncho (see image below) made of conductive threads to form an LED matrix capable of broadcasting messages. As part of his residency at ARQUETOPIA 2013, Shih was invited by Bandui Lab to design the LED poncho for “Adelita”, a Mexican folk song inspired action figure symbolizing the movement of women who joined the Mexico Revolution (1910–1920).

Artist: Wei Cheih Shih, Tools used: Arduino, LED Lights, Attiny85, Wood, Leather, Beads, Embroidery

Shih’s prior work in wearables included experiments in spectacular stage wear embedded with lasers. This nylon suit is embedded with 200 laser diodes, transforming the performer into a mobile light show.

In the same way that clothing can be art, a functional and protective necessity, or a combination of the two, smart fabric is a core enabling technology that can support both creative endeavors and practical safety wear.

By exploring creative experiments, we can start to imagine use cases that might impact our daily lives — truly allowing technology to inspire art and allowing art to challenge technology.